What does the financial crisis mean for greens?

In the last two presidential debates, Barack Obama has twice said that solving America’s energy and environmental problems would be his administration’s top priority, regardless of what state he found the economy in when he arrived in office. John McCain, too, has said that we can fix the energy crisis and prevent climate change even while putting the financial system back on an even keel. But is the candidates’ optimism really justified?

According to a new Rasmussen poll, 48 percent of voters say there’s a fundamental contradiction between environmental policy and economic growth; essentially, half of Americans now believe we can’t have both a sound environmental policy and a strong economy. And let’s be honest: with the Dow in the doldrums and foreclosures still spreading like a rash, it’s pretty obvious which of the two options voters would prefer their leaders to prioritize.

European greens are already feeling the fallout from the financial crisis: the EU’s plans to limit carbon emissions are faltering, with automakers pushing hard for a timeout and saying that global economic turmoil means the proposed limits are too burdensome. “You can't pile on regulation on an industry during its worst time in the last 10 years,” declared Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne.

That message is playing well on this side of the Atlantic, too: during the most recent round of congressional debates over climate legislation, Republicans won the day by abandoning their old strategy of criticizing climate science, and instead arguing that taking action to solve global warming would have disastrous economic consequences. The current financial crunch guarantees that we’ll be hearing that argument again and again in coming months - and that it’ll find a receptive audience among American voters.

The tragedy is that both Obama and McCain are right: it’s perfectly possible to take action on both energy and climate change without breaking the bank. There’s a growing realization, in Washington and in the environmental community, that energy policy isn’t a zero-sum game: embracing green technologies brings efficiency savings and countless green jobs, and will eventually end America’s expensive addiction to foreign oil. But it’ll take foresight, responsibility and strong leadership to make that happen; and if there’s one thing the economic crisis has already proven, it’s that those commodities are in rather short supply.

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